ORLANDO, Florida – Arguably few leaders in the American Catholic Church are better positioned than Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who served as the conference president during the white-hot period of the sexual abuse scandals in the U.S. in 2002-2003, to assess where Pope Francis stands on the issue.
“I’m convinced that he gets it, but I think that he gets it as an Argentinian,” Gregory said.
“That is, he gets it as someone who lives in a culture, and has come from a culture, where it has not been on the television or the headlines of the newspapers with such consistency,” Gregory said.
“I think he clearly understands the gravity of it, but the repercussions that keep occurring…” maybe not so much, the 69-year-old Gregory said.
Gregory spoke to Crux during the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity held in Orlando, Florida.
Not long ago, Gregory led a liturgy of penance for the abuse scandals during a bishops’ meeting in Indianapolis, saying that the Church “can never apologize enough.” He defended the response of the U.S., the heart of which was the “zero tolerance” policy adopted under his leadership during a meeting of the conference in Dallas, but warned that the measures adopted by the Church must be constantly monitored and updated.
“It’s a situation of all of the safeguards we have in place need to be constantly reevaluated and measured up to new standards so that we stay ahead of the game,” he said.
On other matters, Gregory said:
- Immigration is not only reshaping the face of the American church, it’s bringing new energy. “While the challenges that our immigrant people continue to face [are real], and it gets intensified obviously as we talk about documentation and those things, but they also bring quite a spirit of joy and enthusiasm,” he said.
- On the racial tensions that have divided minority communities and police forces across America in recent months, Gregory said the key is to defuse the bomb before it goes off. “I like to use the phrase, we’ve grown very accustomed to saying in the face of violence, ‘We send our thoughts and prayers.’ What we need to do is to send the thoughts and prayers before the event occurs. We need that investment before we’re using it in the face of a violent action.”
- Gregory called for cooling down national rhetoric around immigration debates. “We have to diffuse our hostile language so that we can speak to each other with legitimate questions,” he said. “People claim that what they want is the security of our borders. Ok, let’s talk about that. But let’s talk about it in a way that respects the humanity of the people who are here with or without proper documentation. The level of hostility in our language should frighten all of us.”
- Gregory rejected criticism that religious leaders should stay out of such matters. “I stand with all of the great leaders, men and women, of religious heritage who stood up for justice and righteousness and heard the same thing. Dr. King, certainly Mother Teresa of Calcutta, any of the people who have been in positions of religious leadership and who ran against, or stood up against the secular forces, governmental forces, political forces, have been told, ‘Your job is in the pulpit. Your job is in school.’ My job is to proclaim the Gospel.”
The following are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Gregory, which took place July 2.
Crux: Archbishop, thank you for doing this. How are you?
Gregory: I’m doing well. It’s been a wonderful 24 hours for me, and I’m just delighted with the enthusiasm that I sense in the many people who are here. People obviously who know who I am and come up and introduce themselves…it’s just a happy moment.
Well, that’s got to happen to you all the time, right? I mean, just going through the airport that has to happen. Although, I suppose at a gathering like this the odds of it happening go up a little.
How many people do you have from Atlanta here?
We have a delegation of about 16 of our diocesan people that were chosen by the bishop’s office in consultation with other folks. But there are also other people who are from Atlanta. We have a number of people who are here with the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement. We have some other folks who were sponsored by organizations. They are also here. I would guess the total number of folks from Atlanta would be about 25 or 26.
No event this massive has only one origin, but one of the elements was to be able to say to the world that yeah there are plenty of problems out there, but the Church has still got some gas left in the tank, right? Would you say it’s mission accomplished? Are you picking up that vibe?
One of the things that I’ve seen as a very positive outcome is that this group of people of 3,500 or 3,400 people, are becoming much more aware of the multi-cultural energy of our church. That’s something that we in the Archdiocese of Atlanta have been blessed with, that we are a church that is growing from a number of different streams of people.
Obviously the immigrant community, but not just the Latino immigrant community, the immigrant community from Asia, from Africa, the immigrant community from Europe that still comes. Not in the same way that the Church welcomed them a century ago, but there are still new arrivals and while that source of energy brings with it the challenges that our immigrant people continue to face, and it gets intensified obviously as we talk about documentation and those things, but they also bring quite a spirit of joy and enthusiasm.
We’ve got people who are very proud to be Catholic. And they kind of say that in so many different ways.
At one level, the purpose of this is for the diocesan groups that are here to sort of soak in what they’re hearing and seeing and experiencing, and then figure out how to take that home and apply it. Certainly having had a positive experience that reinforced that sense of Catholic pride you were talking about can’t hurt.
It can’t hurt, and you can’t buy that. You can only experience that when you see it demonstrated with people like this gathering.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta has also been very fortunate that for the past 22 years we’ve had an annual Eucharistic congress that for the past 7 or 8 years has brought together 30,000 Catholics in Eucharistic ritual celebration, but it also brings together Catholics from across the economic and cultural diverse community that is Atlanta. And when we get together, we energize each other.
This past Eucharistic congress, only a couple of weeks ago, the largest single component was our Hispanic group, and when I walked into the assembly hall where maybe 8 or 9,000 Hispanic Catholics were singing, they were dancing in the aisle! And so I said to myself, now these are the same people that continue to grapple with the oppressive immigration restrictions that touch the lives of so many people. But when they come together, and they see each other, and hear each other, and support each other, there’s a tremendous experience of joy. That’s kind of on display here.
Almost a year ago at this time, the U.S. bishops decided to create a task force on peace and unity in response to the wave of police violence and protest and tension that that had unleashed across the country. You were named to head that task force. What do you think you were able to do?
Well, the task force had a time limit on it. It was intended to do its research and report to the body of bishops last November. We gathered together a number of individuals, bishops and local leaders to talk about what was going on in their communities, what they were doing proactively.
To defuse the bomb before it goes off?
I like to use the phrase, we’ve grown very accustomed to saying in the face of violence, ‘We send our thoughts and prayers.’ What we need to do is to send the thoughts and prayers before the event occurs. We need that investment before we’re using it in the face of a violent action.
So, the task force met. We had several conference calls. We also had an onsite visit which took place in St. Louis through the gracious invitation of Archbishop [Robert] Carlson in a place that had been one of the initial locations of violence. The task force made several recommendations.
One, it invited and recommended to the local bishops that we all do something in common on a given day. It was a day of prayer on the Feast of St. Peter Claver who is the patron of interracial justice and racial harmony. And we left it to the local communities to figure out. What are you gonna do on Peter Claver’s day? Do what fits your community.
Then, we also highlighted the importance of the bishop as the local pastor and his ability to be a convener so we know that when the bishops call their people together, generally there’s a spirit of willingness to listen. Everyone might not agree with everything, but they’re willing to listen. The bishop of a local community has the ability to convene people, to bring people together.
Also, bishops were invited to solidify and deepen the ecumenical work that is being done on the local level because the tasks that we face in diffusing violence are not anything that can be done by an individual or by an individual church. It has to be an ecumenical gathering.
And the last recommendation was that the task force said that the bishops who were already considering issuing a letter on racial harmony, kind of the next installment of ‘Brothers and Sisters to Us’…but it has to be much more inclusive, because right now as we look at the world in which we live, it is much more violent and its violence involves people of color, but it involves also the Muslim community. It involves the communities of immigrants beyond the Hispanic, but people who have come here without documentation or whose documentation has expired. They too have to be involved in that. So it can’t be a narrow letter. It has to be a much more inclusive letter and that process is going on.
I’m not one of the drafters. It has been entrusted to the Black Catholic subcommittee of the conference, and Bishop Sheldon Fabre who is the chair of that group is working with a drafting committee. So it’s moving forward. The task force said it’s got to move quickly, because it’s needed now more than ever.
On the other recommendations, how do you feel those were implemented?
Well, on the Feast of Peter Claver I think there was a pretty strong outpouring of activities throughout the nation. I couldn’t tell you exactly how many dioceses.
I know what we did in Atlanta. We had all of our children in our schools and religious ed programs that were meeting on that day engaged in prayer. And we gave all the kids a card which they prayed, and you know how kids can take things and make them much more animated because they bring that youthful enthusiasm. But the kids also went home with this card and a lot of homes prayed that evening with that card, because parents said ‘what did you do today?’ ‘Well, we had this prayer on the Feast of St. Peter Claver.’ ‘What was that about?’ ‘Well, we’re praying for peace.’ And it’s kind of hard for parents not to hear what their kids are saying to them about the importance of this action, and we’re going to try to do it annually. And I know other dioceses will do it as well.
There were programs that invited people to come in and have listening sessions with each other. We had one of those as well. Will it work? With prayer and persistence, I believe it will.
I know this is probably impossible, but can you point to a place where you think these initiatives helped head something off?
Well, I shared with you earlier outside of our conversation I am very much impressed by the leadership that took place in Charleston in South Carolina in light of the horrible events at Mother Emmanuel. There was leadership in place already in the person of Mayor Joe Riley and, after the tragic event, Dr. Norvel Goff. He was the acting pastor at Emmanuel.
Where there is strong leadership, they can’t prevent violence as they couldn’t in that instance, but they were a calming presence.
They helped contain its aftermath.
Right. And then of course there were no witnesses, there was no voice more important than the voices of those family members who forgave that young man. It was powerful.
Earlier this summer, when the bishops got together in Indianapolis, you celebrated a liturgy of penance in this case for the sexual abuse scandals in the church. The headline is that you said we can never be sorry enough, and we can never stop saying that we’re sorry for the scandals. Let me ask your overall assessment. Compared to when you were president of the conference, where do you think things are today in terms of the Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandals, and what is the unfinished business?
I certainly believe that we as a conference of bishops in the United States took proper action in putting into place the safeguards that are there now, the programs for safety, the use of programs that validate one’s background checks, etc., etc. So all of those things I think were appropriate.
But I used that phrase in the homily in Indianapolis based on a conversation that I had with a wonderful woman who’s the mother and the wife of a family that I grew to know and love, and I’m still close to from my previous diocese in Belleville. And I would go to their home, this is obviously before I was caught up in this, although in that diocese I inherited some very serious issues. But we agreed to have an occasional kitchen dinner, just the husband, myself and his wonderful wife, and I insisted and they agreed that we’d call them kitchen dinners. That is I’d be a part of the family, we’d eat in the kitchen, no fancy tablecloths, the bishop would come in casual attire, we’d have a nice meal together and relax.
In the course of that, after the events of 2002 took place, I had one of these dinners and someone, I had told her, her name was Judy, I said, ‘Judy, they’re saying that I’ve never apologized.’ Well, you know in those three years I apologized I thought sufficiently to many, many people. I thought sufficiently. And she said to me, ‘Wilton, you’re not a married man, but I’m gonna give you a lesson. When a married man has really goofed up, when he’s really crossed over the line, when he’s really done something terrible, he can never apologize enough.’
And I never forgot that.
It’s not that married people don’t forgive, that wives don’t forgive husbands, but there is a level of seriousness that cannot be glossed over with a simple ‘I’m sorry.’ It is something that needs repeated and heartfelt and sincere recognition over the long haul. And that’s what I meant.
This was so catastrophic in the life of the Church, and continues to be, that we need as bishops to remember this is not a one-and-done apology. So that’s exactly what I meant.
As you watch and listen to the pope on this issue, are you convinced he gets it?
I’m convinced that he gets it, but I think that he gets it as an Argentinian. That is, as someone who lives in a culture and has come from a culture where it has not been on the television or the headlines of the newspapers with such consistency. I think he clearly understands the gravity of it, but the repercussions that keep occurring…
As I mentioned earlier, I think we have done in the United States a good job, but not a complete job. It’s a situation of all of the safeguards we have in place need to be constantly reevaluated and measured up to new standards so that we stay ahead of the game.
So, the policy dimension is not one-and-done either?
No, that’s right.
You’ve mentioned during the course of this chat a couple times the immigrant experience. We live in a time in which many immigrants feel what people have described as a ‘climate of fear.’ Do you detect that pastorally in Atlanta too?
Oh, yes. The rhetoric that has surrounded this present moment is not at all helpful. It’s not at all helpful to the climate of the people who are here, whose documentation may have exceeded its limits or are here, they were brought here as children without any malice on the parts of their families. Obviously not just without malice, but with a great desire on the parts of their families to improve their lives.
We have to look at the fact that many people who are here legitimately, that is with proper documentation, are also afraid. We have to look at the young people who were born here and so they’re American citizens, but their parents may lack proper documentation.
The level of anxiety has many different levels, many different arenas, and we have to, in my humble opinion, we have to diffuse our hostile language so that we can speak to each other with legitimate questions. You know people who claim that what they want is the security of our borders. Ok, let’s talk about that. But let’s talk about it in a way that respects the humanity of the people who are here with or without proper documentation.
The level of hostility in our language should frighten all of us.
When you talk about immigration, or for that matter racial justice or anything else, I’m sure there’s going to be someone out there who is going to say what are you doing talking about this? Stay out of politics. It’s not your job. When you get that kind of blowback, what do you say?
I say that I want to stand with all of the great leaders, men and women, of religious heritage who stood up for justice and righteousness and heard the same thing. Dr. King, certainly Mother Teresa of Calcutta, any of the people who have been in positions of religious leadership and who ran against, or stood up against the secular forces, governmental forces, political forces, have been told, ‘your job is in the pulpit. Your job is in school.’
My job is to proclaim the Gospel. And that takes me out of the pulpit, onto the streets, into the public arena, because that’s where the Gospel is intended to be proclaimed. I think that’s what Francis is saying.
But you know the criticism that I would hear, that I have heard is the same that all of the great religious leaders who had the nerve and the courage to confront the status quo have heard before.
So same old, same old.
Same old, same old.